We still need unions

Flourishing social architecture depends on effective, collective voice.

March 11 th 2011

Unions are back in the crosshairs, from which they never seem to stray very long. In recent weeks, pundits watching events in Quebec, Wisconsin, and elsewhere have attacked union power and purposes. Public-sector unions, in particular, have been buried in scepticism. Andrew Coyne, writing in Maclean's, calls unions "the biggest hurdle" to government reform. David Brooks suggests in the New York Times that states with public sector unions "tend to run into fiscal crises," and host workforces where "there is little relationship between excellence and reward." And, predictably, the libertarian Thomas Sowell reminded us Tuesday that "the most fundamental fact about labour unions is that they do not create any wealth. They... siphon off wealth created by others, whether they are businesses or the taxpayers."

At least in North America, the argument goes, unions have outlived their purpose. Yes, they made tremendous gains in employment fairness and equity—decades ago. Today, government safety nets are more than sufficient to protect the vulnerable, and unions remain only to produce entitled, anti-business workforces. Right?

As I did some years ago, I must disagree (see "Collective Representation: A Conservative Defense," Comment, September 2004). Unions are not finished. While some of our ingrained laws and structures around labour, both in Canada and the United States, are outdated and problematic, there remains an important place in a free market economy for effective representative organizations for workers.

The pro/anti-union debate can get tired pretty quickly. There are two basic versions of the argument that have been had many times before.

What's in it for me?

While Ms. What's-In-It-For-Me concedes that thirty years ago unions were necessary, she does so only because she thinks the things they accomplished were worthwhile. Since then, the social safety net—another name for government programs—has taken over the job. She doesn't like today's unions' agenda and is quite ready to eliminate them, especially if she is ambitious. Yet she's likely to change her tune the day after she's been aggrieved, demanding that the union take up her cause. And her satisfaction with the government programs will probably wane a bit when she needs to rely on them, but for now at least, she can tell you exactly how much is taken from each paycheque in union dues and how little she is getting for it.

Uncle Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For has had occasion to practice his response many times: "Typical new worker attitude, with little appreciation for the fact that what we get today comes from the hard-earned battles of a previous generation. Unions went to bat for workers to achieve decent wages, safety regulations, and health and retirement benefits, and instead of getting thanked, we get a kick in the rear. They talk as if all unions do is strike, when, in fact, 99% of agreements are achieved without a work stoppage. They rant against union leadership, but never show up at the meetings—yet when they have a grievance, they are the first to come for help. What they don't realize is that the conservative argument that 'a rising tide raises all ships' applies just as much to worker wages. Take unions out of the equation, and anyone in a job where their skill set can be easily duplicated or replaced will see how little loyalty there really is in that 'pro-business' world you are so ready to embrace."

No, it's what's in it for us

While the above version of the argument is most common, and while it addresses the "what have you done for me lately" arguments, a more ideological version of the argument also makes the rounds. The anti-union side portrays every worker as "Me, Inc.," with marketable skills and the ability to pick the best employer who wants to buy their services. Things don't work out? Go back onto the market—a more suitable circumstance is sure to come up. The government provides a few bottom-line rules and acts as referee in cases that get really nasty. But for the most part, the argument says, work hard and we'll all get along and get ahead.

The ideological pro-unionist's blood boils when she hears this free market case. The Walmarts of this world have enough power to set prices in the marketplace, and this only results in a pure race to the bottom. Professionals and those whose skill sets are relatively rare and in demand (and belong to the most powerful unions around—law societies and doctor's associations, who typically control entry to their profession as they negotiate the price) will do OK. But most of those in the "working class" are stuck in that race to the bottom. How loyal do you really think the company is going to be when they can drive an extra percentage of return on their bottom line? Is the older worker who still can do the job but whose step has slowed a bit really going to be kept around, when someone younger is able to do a bit more each hour for a quarter less? Only through labour solidarity and looking out for each other, the unionist argues, will workers be able to keep what they have in this globalized world, where getting ahead seems increasingly difficult.

Work in a broken world

The truth is this: based on these choices, most of us would prefer "none of the above." We would prefer to go to work and focus on a challenging, worthwhile project we can believe in, to get the rush that comes from completing something we are good at or winning against the competition. We'd like to enjoy the camaraderie of good teamwork, or just feel good about ourselves, knowing we have done a good job.

But it is rare to find a job that consistently gives us all of these—such is life in a broken world.

Work, you see, is an essentially human activity. It is part of who we were created to be. But one of the effects of the fall is that work has become toil. It causes pain, sweat, and frustration. Sometimes we enjoy the camaraderie of teamwork; other times we end up fighting with fellow workers, customers, or our bosses.

The politics of the workplace can be very frustrating—there is no pretence that they have an egalitarian nature. The most open-minded and enlightened employer in the world can have all the open door policies she would like, may listen attentively to the input of all stakeholders and implement the best ideas, even giving full credit to others for their share. But no one is deceived into thinking that everyone in the workplace is equal. And for every open-minded and enlightened employer, there is a counterpart without an open mind.

So where do unions help or hinder in the midst of this story? Unfortunately, in Canada (as well as in the United States), we are stuck with labour law frameworks that have been in place since the 1940s, which embed into the very structure of union-management relationships basic adversarial presumptions. The notions of class struggle and restrictive union membership which have become ingrained as standard operating procedure in North American labour relations are just a few of the obvious problematic practices. Former Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove wrote in his memoir that "a union member is like an indentured servant," something that "makes no sense when we talk about worker democracy" (see my review).

My defence of unions is not a defence of the status quo outlined above. But there is a continuing place for unions. There is evidence that providing an effective worker voice can in fact provide value to a company, replacing ineffective individual voices with a stronger collective voice. One might also argue that the absence of effective worker representation at a local level simply results in an increasing tendency for government to fill the vacuum with increased regulation—with much less desirable results.

And when one looks more carefully at some of the apprenticeship, training, recruitment, and safety infrastructures on which our economy relies, many would be surprised at the significant hole that would be left if we got rid of unions. Undoubtedly, some of these programs are better than others, just as there is variety in the calibre of programs offered by employers or governments. But the day-to-day work of unions both in the workplace and in the secondary services they provide is more substantial than we typically account for.

There is little doubt that in the area of labour relations, we continue to hold on to outdated structures and practices. But that is a reason to reform the structures and look for better ways to do things—not to get rid of unions altogether. Unions have not outlived their purpose; they need to be reformed so that they can accomplish the important social and economic purposes that responsible worker-representative institutions can achieve.

 

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.

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